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The Spook of Spooks

Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles

by Peter Grose
Houghton Mifflin/A Richard Todd Book, 641 pp., $30.00

Allen Welsh Dulles was not the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency, or the best, certainly not the wisest, or even the most aggressive, although in that category he comes in a very close second, after William Casey, whose most extravagant secret efforts to win the cold war may be plausibly blamed on the brain tumor which killed him. But Allen Dulles probably had the deeper natural instinct for what his biographer Peter Grose, echoing Kipling, likes to call The Great Game, and he was without question the most important director of the CIA in its first half century—granting, for the moment, that the agency will finish the full fifty years without being sliced up or killed altogether by an irritated Congress.

The conduct of secret intelligence, which was Dulles’s central preoccupation from his first job as a young diplomat in Switzerland during the First World War until his forced resignation from the CIA in 1961, is only part of what Kipling had in mind when he referred to The Great Game. By that he principally meant the hundred-year struggle between Russia and Great Britain for control of Central Asia, and it was a renewed contest with Soviet Russia following the Second World War for control of the entire globe that Dulles pursued with a patriot’s devotion, an appetite for combat, and an elastic sense of the permissible.

Dulles never doubted that the fate of the world as he knew it was at stake, but Dulles was not always right. It is possible that Stalin and his successors had more modest ambitions in mind when they determined to hold on to the countries of Eastern Europe liberated by Soviet armies in 1945. As Grose makes clear in his exemplary book, the best efforts of Dulles’s spies rarely succeeded in penetrating the innermost secrets of the Soviet regime. After the CIA acquired the U-2 spy plane in 1956 and spy satellites in 1960, the agency always knew what the Soviets had, and conventional intelligence efforts kept pretty good track of what the Soviets did, but often neither Dulles nor later directors of Central Intelligence knew what the Soviets really intended. Dulles was required to decide this question on his own.

Next to the somber granite edifice of his older brother, John Foster Dulles, who preached the antiCommunist gospel as Eisenhower’s secretary of state, Allen seemed a genial friend of everyman, with his booming laugh and comfortable way of answering hard questions with a joke or a wink. He loved tennis and played as often as he could between attacks of gout and “skull sessions,” talking shop with operatives in from the field. He seems to have been completely free of personal malice. But intimates knew it was only surface polish that distinguished him from his brother. Dulles unhesitatingly rose to Nikita Khrushchev’s challenge in 1956 when the Russian told a roomful of Western diplomats, “History is on our side. We will bury you.” The fears and alarms of the cold war seem melodramatic and overdrawn now, but the Dulles who ran the CIA during the Eisenhower years was fired by steely resolve to carry the fight to the enemy, and to prevail. Grose gives us the fight round by round in Gentleman Spy; whether Dulles prevailed shall be considered below.

Allen Dulles was not the only man Eisenhower might have appointed to run the CIA in 1953. Indeed one candidate was Dulles’s former boss in the Office of Strategic Services during the war, William J. Donovan, called “Wild Bill” for good reason, who was bored by the law and longed for another chance at the excitements of intelligence in a great cause. But there was behind the choice of Dulles a kind of glacial weight of career, connection, and circumstance. Born in 1893 in upstate New York, son of a Presbyterian minister of modest means, Allen Dulles was the grandson of one secretary of state (John Watson Foster, who served a year under Benjamin Harrison) and nephew of another (Robert Lansing, under Woodrow Wilson), and as a young man Dulles hoped for a chance at the job himself.

His decade with the Foreign Service, beginning in 1916, gave him much experience—a year in Vienna before the United States entered the First World War, a second year spent handling political intelligence in Berne, most of 1919 with the American delegation to the Versailles peace conference, followed by a brief posting to Berlin in time to witness a right-wing military putsch suppressed after a frightening week of confusion and street violence. Among the victims were unlucky Jews beaten half to death before Dulles’s eyes. During a later tour in Constantinople the talk was all of the White Forces fighting across the border in southern Russia against the Bolsheviks. But back in Washington in the early 1920s Dulles got a law degree, and in 1926 he resigned from the Foreign Service for the simple reason that the job didn’t pay enough. His brother Foster’s law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, did, and he joined it.

The later 1920s and 1930s for Dulles were a time of making money, keeping a hand in with the odd diplomatic assignment, persuading his brother Foster in 1935 to quit doing business in Hitler’s Germany, and finding for himself a role in the coming war. To the extent Dulles ever had a private life, this was when he had it. Between his tours in Berlin and Turkey, Dulles had acquired a wife, Clover Todd, safely Presbyterian, pretty, with a taste for going deeply into things of the mind and spirit. This was not at all Dulles’s style, which they both discovered after the first bloom of marriage and young children began to fade. For the rest of their fifty years together Dulles and his wife maintained diplomatic recognition but were frequently apart, often at odds, and at times lived almost as complete strangers. They had three children, including a son who lost part of his brain to shrapnel during the Korean War and has required constant supervision and care ever since. His daughter Joan saw her father cry only once, in June 1940, when the Nazis occupied Paris.

Dulles’s children do not appear to have complained to his biographer but it is clear that life at home was often bleak and lonely. Dulles gave his leisure hours to many women, among them a daughter of Toscanini, a queen of Greece, and Clare Boothe Luce, the wife of Time magazine’s founder and publisher. Whether Clover also had lovers is not quite clear; she certainly deserved them. Dulles doubtless loved his family but they did not interest him. What interested him was men, politics, position, the drama of great events, and being on the inside. Sullivan and Cromwell offered enough of each to keep the appetite keen. His heart’s desire was granted at last in November of 1942, when he slipped across the border into Switzerland with a broad mandate from Donovan as the OSS’s man in Berne. For the next twenty months he was a prisoner in Heaven—no wife, no kids, no dull legal work, and a secret war to fight.

The reputation that made Allen Dulles the inevitable man to head the CIA in 1953 was earned in Switzerland. There he did two notable things. Very soon after his arrival he established contact with the German resistance, a loose nexus of German radicals, conservatives, and conscience-driven Protestants united only by courage and opposition to the crimes of Hitler. When some of them organized a plot on Hitler’s life, Dulles reported to Washington on their halting progress toward the failed attempt of July 20, 1944. Making contact with the underground opposition in a police state was a major covert achievement, exceeded only by Dulles’s success in keeping their exchanges secret despite the scrutiny of German intelligence, which knew his identity from the day he arrived, placed agents in his household, and at one time was even reading his secret cables to Washington. At the end of the war Dulles wrote and published a short book on the resistance called Germany’s Underground, still an important source on their hopes and mostly tragic fate. But good Germans were not a hot property in 1947, and the book could hardly be given away.

Dulles’s second triumph in Berne was to negotiate the surrender of German military forces in Italy before the end of the war. Grose is particularly good here, as elsewhere, at providing a crisp account of a complex episode. What made this one especially delicate was Stalin’s suspicion of his allies. Having precipitated the war himself by agreeing to a non-aggression pact with Germany in August 1939, Stalin was keenly alert to the danger that Churchill and Roosevelt might reach a separate peace with Hitler and leave Russia to face Germany alone. When the Americans, abiding by their agreements to the letter, informed Stalin of the initial contact with General Karl Wolff in February 1945, Dulles’s task was immensely complicated. He succeeded eventually in the negotiations for surrender, but not until May 2, only a few days before the war ended generally.

Dulles got plenty of things wrong during the war; he was far too credulous, for example, about the so-called “Bavarian redoubt,” where Hitler allegedly planned to fight on from an impregnable fortress in the German Alps. Hitler had no such plans and stayed in his bunker. But Dulles got the big things right when they counted most. His contact with the Resistance offered a doorway into the mood of the German elite—a growing sense of impending defeat, held in check by fear of the Gestapo. Knowing that Germans felt trapped and helpless gave Washington confidence that victory was only a matter of time—a confidence, everything considered, as useful as an extra ten divisions. Ending the war in Italy a week early saved the Allies hundreds and perhaps thousands of casualties. With the exception of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, no intelligence operation of the Second World War achieved more than did Dulles’s tiny office in Berne, staffed with a miscellany of Americans stranded in Switzerland by the war. What Dulles did he did largely by himself. Continuing secrecy about most of the details only polished the luster of his feats. After the war he lobbied patiently for a national intelligence service, and urged that all secret activities be housed under a single roof. He was willing to work quietly in lesser jobs when others were put in charge, and was undeniably, irresistibly, and conspicuously available when Eisenhower wanted a spy chief to support an aggressive foreign policy pledged to roll back communism.

Gentleman Spy has an unusual history. Grose inherited a partly written and thoroughly researched manuscript which had been started and then abandoned a decade earlier by Richard Harris Smith, author of an early history of the OSS. Smith had interviewed scores of old CIA hands during the early 1970s and had completed a long account of Dulles’s years in the agency, when a Senate investigating committee under Senator Frank Church began to release an exhaustive series of reports in 1976. Smith felt he would have to rework all he had written in light of the new material but found it impossible to resume the task.

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